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J Hist Biol. 2011 Fall;44(3):505-46. doi: 10.1007/s10739-010-9257-1.

The riddle of sex: biological theories of sexual difference in the early twentieth-century.

Author information

1
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1017, USA. nha@princeton.edu

Abstract

At the turn of the twentieth century, biologists such as Oscar Riddle, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Frank Lillie, and Richard Goldschmidt all puzzled over the question of sexual difference, the distinction between male and female. They all offered competing explanations for the biological cause of this difference, and engaged in a fierce debate over the primacy of their respective theories. Riddle propounded a metabolic theory of sex dating from the late-nineteenth century suggesting that metabolism lay at the heart of sexual difference. Thomas Hunt Morgan insisted on the priority of chromosomes, Frank Lillie emphasized the importance of hormones, while Richard Goldschmidt supported a mixed model involving both chromosomes and hormones. In this paper, I will illustrate how the older metabolic theory of sex was displaced when those who argued for the relatively newer theories of chromosomes and hormones gradually formed an alliance that accommodated each other and excluded the metabolic theory of sex. By doing so, proponents of chromosomes and hormones established their authority over the question of sexual difference as they laid the foundations for the new disciplines of genetics and endocrinology. Their debate raised urgent questions about what constituted sexual difference, and how scientists envisioned the plasticity and controllability of this difference. These theories also had immediate political and cultural consequences at the turn of the twentieth century, especially for the eugenic and feminist movements, both of which were heavily invested in knowledge of sex and its determination, ascertainment, and command.

PMID:
21082219
DOI:
10.1007/s10739-010-9257-1
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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